Henry Lerolle's The Organ Rehearsal

Henry Lerolle's The Organ Rehearsal

The Organ Rehearsal, 1885, painted by French artist Henry Lerolle (1848-1929), is a large-scale work that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. The work hangs solo on the gallery wall, immersing spectators in an overwhelming sense of calm and relaxation. This serene feeling produced by looking at the work is attributed to the work’s “expressive content,” a term coined by Joshua C. Taylor, used to describe that “unique fusion of subject matter and specific visual form, which characterizes the particular work of art.”[1] In his book, “Learning to Look” Taylor explains that although two or more paintings may have a similar subject matter, they differ in expressive content, thus each painting is the basis of a new experience. Therefore, it is necessary to determine what makes the rehearsal depicted in Lerolle’s work produce that unique expressive content and visual experience distinctive to The Organ Rehearsal. In this paper, The Organ Rehearsal will be subject to a visual analysis that will reveal its subject matter, formal components, and its physical condition to date. The visual analysis will begin at the literal level of subject matter identification and move to the more enigmatic, that being the specific temperament of the work “inseparable from our visual experience.”[2]

Organized within a closed space, The Organ Rehearsal depicts seven figures that form an arc stretching along the left edge of the painting. These figures sit or stand patiently behind the female protagonist who looks out beyond the platform, on which all the figures are placed; the protagonist, portrayed distinct from her peers, sings her lines out onto the church that exists beneath and around the figures. This woman, a poised silhouette clad in black, reads from music sheets as the male organ player plays from behind a yellow ochre structure that protrudes out into the platform and joins the wooden banister to create a diagonal that runs across the entirety of the picture plane. To say that this diagonal separates the painting into two equal halves is an approximation; however, when our eye moves from the top of the banister to the bottom, it is evident that the bright line, which functions to show depth of the step, really acts to divide the picture plane into two equal parts. The element of measured line repeats itself again and again in the work, as it reverberates from the architecture of the foreground onto the wall of the background, infused with wrapping curvilinear, horizontal, and vertical lines. Although the background and foreground of the painting are so distinct from one another that they look as though they could reside in separate works, the element of harmonious line connects the two. In fact, the exaggeration of the diagonal forces the viewer to quickly separate the foreground and the background, so much so, we now are elevated onto the same plane as the painted figures, standing with them as they listen to the organ play.

The figures quietly watch the standing female singer, as they gaze out in the same direction, only to reveal a sliver of profile. Interrupting this harmonious continuity is the man who looks out from the picture plane at the viewer seemingly legitimizing and questioning our presence, and the woman who stands curiously behind the organ player. Though the element of line is continuous and inseparable within the work, the figures, though generally unified in temperament and action, are isolated from one another. It is as though you can pluck one figure from the picture and its neighbor would remain in tact. This sense of individual parts reading as independent clear units is called “multiplicity,” a “Wölfflinian” concept closely related to “absolute clarity,” in which each part of the work is explicitly rendered so each unit exists as if separate from its neighbor. Though the individual units are “subordinate to the whole”, the work, in its entirety, is “perceived as a whole.”[3] Each part of The Organ Rehearsal, the backdrop of the church as well as the figures on the stage - from the men and women to the untidy pile of books and papers to the wooden chairs – mesh perfectly into a pristine order, such that a certain regal sophistication emerges.

The overall sense of equilibrium produced by the painting is not only due to the smooth transition from plane to plane or from line to line, it is also attributed to the color environment of which these forms are part. Lerolle employs a neutral palate, autumnal in its brown earths, ochres, and reds, and incorporates a small number of hues, ranging in saturation and in value. The brown and gray hues, derived from mixing complementary colors, shift in value from the very dark to the very light as our eye moves from the bottom of the painting to the top, forming a sort of scalene triangle of brown gradients. In reading the work from left to right the pigments move from high saturation to low saturation; the central diagonal forms two triangles: the left one is generally high in saturation and the right is low in saturation, as the brown hue has been made almost white. These transitions in saturation and value of hue create a harmonious effect, as such, the viewer is swept away in a vortex of browns and creams, only to be interrupted by the immediate impact of the primaries scattered within the platform. The red, yellow, and blue, used to describe the books or feathers from the ladies’ hats, though minimally employed, push this overwhelming effect of mellifluous equilibrium. Taylor points out that primaries as a group represent a balance of the entire spectrum and due to the fact that we use them everyday, they provoke a direct emotional response.[4]

Lerolle uses these primaries in their highest saturation to indicate their prevalence, which, in turn, forces the viewer to want to grab the red book from the seated woman’s hand, finger the bright yellow feather on the singer’s hat, or even riffle through the pile of books and papers on the floor. According to Bernard Berenson, for this visual experience to occur, the artist must consciously construct a third dimension by “giving tactile values to retinal impressions.”[5] In that, the artist must stimulate our consciousness of “tactile values” and make prevalent “ideated satisfactions” over actual ones.[6] With the highly dramatized, comprehensive foreground stage as distinct from the basic muted backdrop, we see how the artist has used color not only to characterize the “emotional climate” of the work, but also to “stimulate our consciousness of tactile values, so that the painting has as much or more power as the object represented, to appeal to our tactile imagination.”[7]  

In speaking of the figurative tactile elements of The Organ Rehearsal, it is important to also discuss the actual, literal tactile component: the paint layer. In this work, the paint layer itself is captivating because of its palpable physical condition. First, it is important to assess the artist’s choice of media and his brushwork. Lerolle utilized oils as a binding media when composing his painting. Artists began to use oil because of its wide range of handling effects. Oil allows smooth transitions from light to dark; it is slow drying, stays wet, produces luminous effects, and is usually applied in thin layers. Lerolle’s application of oil paint/his brushwork lends itself to the method of layering, the “methodical building up of paint in stages.”[8] This is clear when we direct our attention to the floor of the platform; here, the gray color is the product of multiple paint layers used to render it partially transparent, a method called scumbling used to describe opaqueness in varying degrees. To influence the color of the layers below the surface, glazing is employed; it involves the layering of transparent upper layers usually done with dark, translucent paint over a layer of lighter, opaque paint. Oil as a binding medium is relatively benign in affecting the aging process of a work; consequently, we must look to other elements of the paint layer, mainly to pigment.

The nature of the pigments utilized reveal why fading and darkening have occurred in The Organ Rehearsal. Since the mid-nineteenth century, around the time when this work was painted in 1885, lake pigments, dyes made to function as pigments, were synthesized from mineral-based dyes, such as anilines. We can assume Lerolle employed lake pigments as he was most likely influenced by contemporary practice and because of obvious fading of the paint layer, which is an indication of the use of such pigments, as they tend to be impermanent and fugitive when exposed to light. Fading is apparent when we look at the protagonist’s music sheets and see how they practically blend in with the cream backdrop of the church. Moreover, it is evident that the dark blacks describing the clothing of the figures, especially towards the left edge of the canvas, indicate color change and sunk color, which are also attributed to fugitive pigments and increasing transparency. Increasing transparency, which occurs from particular physical properties of binding media and pigments, causes murkiness and sinking of dark colors, making the dark areas harder to decipher. It is difficult to confirm particular losses of paint, however, it can be assumed that much more detail existed at one point; the clearest example is the almost vacant face of the bearded man looking out at the viewer. In discussing pigment and repercussions of use, it is clear The Organ Rehearsal is subject to both inherent vice and nature as contributors to its aging process.

The effects of aging via craquelure are extremely apparent, even from several feet away. The craquelure covers the entirety of the painting, not one inch of the surface is spared. Large, arching crackle envelops the canvas, indicating a thick ground implemented by the artist. The painting has been punctured as confirmed by several concentric circular cracks. A blatant ridge stretches a few feet across the bottom of the painting, denoting a stress crack caused from the expansion of the stretcher. A deep horizontal crack on the organ player’s robe suggests that an external force has slashed the painting. Some areas of the paint layer are covered in fine cracks from drying of the ground layer. In raking light, a predominance of directional cracks is apparent, which indicates that the canvas has been rolled. Finally, a few spots on the painting suffer from localized damage in the form of bubbling, as seen right above the artist’s signature. The numerous damages this painting has suffered are attributed to internal vice and nature. Due to the directional cracks coupled with the other forms of damage, we can assume the work has been subject to atmospheric challenges such as water and other damaging external sources; this may suggest that The Organ Rehearsal has been stored in an unregulated area for a long period of time.

Although the damage was the first thing I noticed upon engagement with the work, it began to become inseparable from its expressive content. The Organ Rehearsal’s damage is somewhat soothing as it overwhelms the viewer in seas of line, both intentional and not. Though this work has been severely damaged to produce an all-over webbing effect, the harsh contrast of the skeins of craquelure with the premeditated linear nature of the painting produce a harmonious intermingling of form and line.





Works Cited

Berenson, Bernard. "Italian Painters of the Renaissance." Historical and Philosophical

Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996. 100-105. Print.

Berenson, Bernard. "Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts." Historical and Philosophical

Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996. 44-46. Print.

Kirsh, Andrea, and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings. Vol. 1. New Haven and

London: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1981. Print.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History. Dover Publications, Inc, 1950. Print.

[1] Joshua C. Taylor, Learning to Look, 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1981, 51.

[2] Taylor, 52.

[3] Heinrich Wölfflin. Principles of Art History. Dover Publications, Inc, 1950, 127.

[4] Taylor, 53.

[5] Bernard Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance." Historical and Philosophical

Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996, 100.

[6] Bernard Berenson. "Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts." Historical and Philosophical

Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996, 46.

[7] Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance,” 101.

[8] Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings. Vol. 1. New Haven and

London: Yale UP, 2000, 121


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